The biggest emerging technologies of the past 10 years

  • The 10th Anniversary edition of the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies Report launches on November 16.
  • In the run-up to its launch, we’re taking a look back at some of the biggest emerging technologies from the past decade.
  • Not all emerging technology has come of age yet.

Significant technological advances over the past decade have changed the way we live, work and interact with each other.

Yet, many of these developments either happened behind closed doors in research laboratories and private companies or became so quickly ingrained in our daily lives that they often went unnoticed.

Every year, experts convened by the World Economic Forum and Scientific American make predictions about the emerging technologies expected to have major social, economic, and environmental impacts worldwide.

While some of these technologies have been catapulted into public consciousness and are fully integrated into our lives, others have been slower to gain momentum.

In the run-up to the 10th Anniversary edition of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies Report, launching 16 November, we take a look at some of the technologies from the past nine reports and ask: did the technology change the world, or did it fail to fulfil its potential? How is it impacting lives today, and where is it headed?

Personalized medicine

Given the poor success rates of treatments for things like cancer and depression, medical professionals have been trying to tailor treatments to individual patients for some time.

Personalized medicine was one of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies in our 2012 list.

A decade on, there is renewed cause for optimism, says Dr. Elizabeth O’Day, CEO and Founder of Olaris, Inc: “In the next 5 to 10 years, we will be able to get the right drug to the right patient at the right time at the right dose and optimize all of these parameters.

“We spend billions of dollars every year on drugs or treatments that don’t work. Personalized medicine stands to correct this. Not only are we going to improve [patient] outcomes, but we can cut costs on drugs and treatments that aren’t going to benefit an individual.”

But for personalized medicine to benefit everyone, scientists trying to figure out which treatments work best for which patients will require data from as diverse a group as possible.

“We need all ethnicities, all geographies, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to be involved in this process, or risk increasing health disparities, and that’s not the future of medicine that we want to create.”

Genomic vaccines

Genomic vaccines – vaccines made from DNA or RNA that encode desired proteins – have been in development for many years but saw unexpected success in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The technology was on our list of Top 10 emerging technologies in 2017, and three years later, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna created the world’s first mRNA vaccines to tackle the world’s biggest health threat.

Equitable distribution of vaccines is a global challenge, but in future, access to genomic vaccine technology could be democratized, believes Prof. Robin Shattock, Chair of Mucosal Infection and Immunity at Imperial College London.

“I think we’ll see many governments around the world wanting to establish their own manufacturing capacity and… because you don’t need a large manufacturing facility, it could move to a situation where there are many regional manufacturing centres that have the hardware and what becomes distributed is the software – the genetic code for the next pandemic pathogen or the next chronic target.

“I’m hoping it will revolutionize a lot of what we do. It’s not a magic bullet, it won’t replace all other types of vaccines, but it will have an important role to play in public health.”

Social robots

In 2019, we identified that droid friends and robot assistants would increasingly become part of everyday life, looking after the elderly and educating children – and the pandemic has accelerated this trend due to the need to maintain a social distance.

But there’s still a little way to go. As robotics become more integrated into people’s lives, they will need to be designed to detect, interpret, and respond to human behaviour, according to Henny Admoni, A. Nico Habermann Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.

“In our consciousness as a society, we’ve been thinking about social robots for a very long time, but the reality is that most of the robots that are out in the world right now are much more physical robots that tend to be isolated from humans.

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

“A social robot is not a replacement for social interaction, but becomes a medium through which communities can engage and people can interact.”

“It’s really important as we build robots into our lives that we consider the ethical implications of robotics, who has access to these different technologies and what these technologies are perpetuating in terms of the social norms that are already embedded in society.”